Business Irish

Thursday 17 October 2019

Beyond the final whistle

Trevor Twamley and Declan Bourke of Sport Endorse
Trevor Twamley and Declan Bourke of Sport Endorse

Fearghal O'Connor Deputy Business Editor

When the Irish team takes to the field in Japan, Joe Schmidt will undoubtedly have them focused very much on the moment. But, far from the pitch, in quieter moments, older players in the squad will inevitably find their mind turning to life after rugby.

"The time comes to everyone where they have to hang up their boots," former Ireland star Tommy Bowe said when he retired last year.

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"Being 'Tommy Bowe the rugby player' has been such a big part of my life for so long and that it's going to take a bit of getting used to. Somebody asks you, 'what do you do?' Well, I used to play rugby."

Bowe, with his own clothing range, TV presenting gigs and string of quirky guest appearances, is a model of how to retire well from the game after a sparkling career.

But Trevor Twamley and Declan Bourke, the co-founders of sports agency Sports Endorse, know only too well how difficult that moment can be. They count a string of high profile rugby stars - past and present - among their clients and work hard for them to make the moment of retirement an opportunity rather than a threat.

"It is a very important time for players on the team right now," says Twamley, a veteran of the advertising and sports television industry. "The whole world is watching them. They want to play well for their country, their family, their friends, their fans and that is number one. But they are also aware that there are brands out there watching them too.

"It's very important to be ready for that, even for someone who was a huge name in Irish rugby. The mental side of that transition is very important."

Twamley's Sports Endorse co-founder Declan Bourke, an entrepreneur whose background is in the capital markets, agrees that retirement can be a difficult time for a player.

"You're basically reinventing yourself," he says. "If I'm an accountant and I am made unemployed because there's a redundancy round and I go and join another firm, well I'm still an accountant. But when you stop being a rugby player, there's only so many punditry and coaching jobs out there."

Making it big in rugby is lucrative but it pays nothing close to the lottery-win-like totals that top level Premier League soccer stars can routinely command. Even the most prominent rugby players - and their accountants - know that retirement does not leave them with a pot of gold that will sustain a high-end lifestyle in perpetuity.

"Rugby players do not earn a seven-figure wage," says Twamley. Whereas there are guys in the Premier League earning large six-figure sums... a week."

In Irish rugby a promising young professional could start out on a wage of perhaps €50,000 or €60,000 a year and, if they rise to the very top of the game, might end up on contracts worth 10 times that.

Image rights deals and extended brand ambassador roles can add six-figure sums to that for high-profile international players and such deals can extend into retirement for the best known players.

"There are deals to be done if players are willing to put themselves out there. Heading towards the twilight of your career there are all sorts of things a player can look at. I did, however, get laughed at by one player when I suggested to him that he could do a recipe book," laughs Bourke.

Another player asked the agents to get him on to Dancing With The Stars to increase his profile. "And then," recalls Twamley, "we suggested Dancing With The Stars to a different player and his response was, 'I couldn't dance around the kitchen'. It's horses for courses… people have different likes and aspirations and our job is to find what works for each individual."

But one of the key issues that even the very best paid international rugby players must consider is their actual overall earning potential, says Bourke. "If I'm an accountant I may start out my career on a €35,000 salary. I will work my way up in a practice or in a corporate entity and ultimately might end up pulling somewhere between €90,000-€120,000. I could have that career from, say, my mid to late 20s until probably the age of 60 or 65. Whereas if you're a rugby player, and let's say you're on that kind of money - let's say €140,000 - that's a decent wage but your career is probably over, if you're lucky, when you're 35. So there's 30 years of earning I will have as an accountant, which the rugby player doesn't have. That is why it's important for them to explore other sources of commercial revenue while they can."

Most professional rugby players here are members of Rugby Players Ireland and, says Bourke, the organisation does good work to help prepare them for the end of their career, in terms of education and opportunities.

There is a perception that well known rugby players can walk into jobs at big corporates based solely on their sporting profile. There is some truth in this but it is not always a role that will provide long-term fulfilment, according to Bourke.

"It depends on the skill set which the player has developed outside of being a rugby player," he says. "If they haven't done much else but they have a good name, then clearly they could be used for a client relations role or in some form of business development role and hopefully skill-up accordingly. But that's kind of it. And, unless you are lucky, that too is quite a short-term career," he says.

"Because as soon as you hang up your boots, unfortunately, your relevance starts to decline quite rapidly. You're no longer in the newspaper scoring tries or kicking conversions or catching lineouts."

Prolonging your relevance is something that has to begin long before you retire, he says.

"It can start much earlier in their career. We try to match our clients with a good brand that aligns with their own values and get them a role as a brand ambassador. Potentially that can open up opportunities for them to do some internship or work experience with a top brand, and that might evolve."

Building profile - not to mention making money - is something that ex-players, as well as current players who have not made the squad, can do in the weeks and months ahead of a Rugby World Cup.

"It's a busy time for them. If they can't make money now they can forget about it," says Twamley.

Twamley has worked at previous Rugby World Cups for television but this is his first time working on it as an agent with Sports Endorse.

"We've been busy getting rugby players and ex-players gigs around either live coverage of the games, media work, punditry, Q and As. Organisations are happy to get five minutes of a past rugby player's time."

And it's not just TV and radio that have been looking for talking heads around the World Cup. A range of big Irish corporates have also sought current and past rugby players as part of the build up. "The World Cup means rugby is topical and everyone is talking about it. So companies will come to us saying they'd love to do something for their customers or staff, maybe a motivational day."

That, of course, provides the possibility for nice earners for current and past players alike. For stars of the past, who may have missed out on the money of the professional era, this can be particularly attractive, not least because fees are generally between €3,500 and €10,000 per gig.

"And it goes beyond that if you are a big name," says Twamley. "Social media has become very important in this too. If you have 100,000 followers on Instagram you're more likely to get the good jobs than someone with 5,000 followers."

Sunday Independent

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